October 5, 2018 by Janet Fletcher
Last October’s horrific wildfires in Sonoma and Napa counties made one thing abundantly clear: The worst of times brings out the best in people.
Within hours, locals had mobilized to feed and house their traumatized neighbors, launching a tidal wave of grassroots philanthropy. From the No Pay Café, born on the second night of the fire, to free yoga classes, efforts continue to help fire victims get back on their feet. A year later, new homes are rising and communities are healing, but the recovery for many is far from complete.
“We’re still providing free meals every Saturday,” says Sheana Davis, a Sonoma caterer who dreamed up the No Pay Café after evacuating her own home on Sunday evening, the first night of the fire.
One year in, the communities stricken by the October wildfires are on the rebound although at different paces. Some replacement homes are rising; other plans are hamstrung by insurance shortfalls or labor shortages. Emotions are still raw, with residents on edge until this year’s fire season passes.
The huge outpouring of support — financial and otherwise — took many residents by surprise and reminded them that people internationally feel a connection to these famous wine regions. Hashtags like #sonomastrong and #napastrong quickly alerted the world that these communities were resilient and would bounce back.
Despite the optimism and outpouring of support, many folks are still struggling. In both Napa and Sonoma counties, a shortage of construction labor is hindering many residents’ plans to rebuild and is sending costs soaring. Terence Mulligan, president of Napa Valley Community Foundation, estimates that building expenses have doubled since the fire, reaching $500 to $800 per square foot and leaving many victims facing a giant chasm between their insurance payout and their needs. Homeowners who are rebuilding worry that too many neighbors won’t, especially in Sonoma County, where many of those affected were of modest means.
“A lot of people find it too daunting,” says Jacqueline Scott, who, with her husband, Brian, is rebuilding the family home in Santa Rosa’s Larkfield Estates. “There’s such a backlog.” The Scotts’ general contractor told them that he has 90 contracts that will take seven years to complete.
Researchers say one of the stages victims experience when recovering from trauma is disillusionment, a confrontation with reality and a sense of uncertainty that emerges after the immediate crisis fades. “I think it would be accurate to say we’re in that period right now,” says Caitlin Childs, director of communication for the Community Foundation Sonoma County. “Homeowners are still questioning what they’re going to do next.”
David Leal, who lost his home in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park, is hoping the free yoga classes he teaches will help others to decompress. “I was seeking anything I could do to relieve my own stress,” says Leal, who has now been trained, along with 56 other local instructors, in trauma-informed yoga. “People have told me, ‘This is my one hour of peace a week,’” says Debbie Mason of the Healthcare Foundation Northern Sonoma County, which underwrites the teacher training and classes.
Compared with Sonoma, Napa Valley’s recovery seems further along, probably because more affluent residents took most of the hit. “Few visitor-facing businesses were affected physically,” Mulligan says. “You almost need a Sherpa to take you around to see the significant personal losses.”
Tourism in Napa plunged in October but quickly recovered, says Clay Gregory, president of Visit Napa Valley. Hotel bookings were barely off for the association’s fiscal year, which ended in June. “Given how dramatically things went awry in October, we’re happy where we landed,” Gregory says. “We’re blessed that people love coming here.”
Even as wildfires have ravaged swaths of the state farther north of Wine Country, the late-summer weather has been eerily perfect in these two picturesque wine valleys, and the leafy vineyards show no wounds from last year’s drama. “There are visible scars if you look for them,” Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey says. “But for the most part, all the things that make this a great place to visit — our wineries, our coast, the river and the redwoods — were not affected.”
For their part, Leal and his neighbors have their own plan for the fire’s one-year anniversary. “We’re going to meet at 2 a.m., when things went down in Coffey Park,” he says. “We’re going to celebrate resilience and recovery.”